Home in vs. hone in

Home in means to direct on a target. The phrasal verb derives from the 19th-century use of homing pigeons, but it resurged in the 20th century to refer to missiles that home in on their targets. It’s also commonly used metaphorically, where to home in on something is to focus on and make progress toward it.

Hone in began as an alteration of home in, and many people regard it as an error. It is a very common, though, especially in the U.S. and Canada—so common that many dictionaries now list it—and there are arguments in its favor. Hone means to sharpen or to perfect, and we can think of homing in as a sharpening of focus or a perfecting of one’s trajectory toward a target. So while it might not make strict logical sense, extending hone this way is not a huge leap.

Outside North America, home in prevails by a huge margin. It also prevails in North America, but only by a ratio of about two to one. Hone in is common even in technical, scientific, and military contexts, where one might expect home in to prevail. A few American and Canadian publishers clearly favor home in as a matter of policy, but most apparently have no strictly enforced policy one way or the other.

Examples

Home in

Bone cancer is sometimes treated with radioactive isotopes that home in on the bone. [NY Times]

But now the sharks were starting to home in on the large groups that had amassed during the past thirty-six hours. [In Harm’s Way, Doug Stanton]

But they do reveal Dahl’s uncanny ability to home in on the darker reaches of human ingenuity. [Financial Times]

Unlike some of his other films, though, which home in on the ways in which sex and violence overlap, La tarea analyses sexuality in a humorous context. [A Companion to Latin American Film, Stephen M. Hart]

Hone in

Burke advises students to hone in on departments in which they are comfortable and already feel close to professors. [Swarthmore Phoenix]

Other resources like HDTv Antenna Labs provide relatively easy ways to hone in on the right antenna. [Wired]

It’s not the first multinational to hone in on one of the largest vegetarian markets on earth. [Toronto Star]

Comments

  1. Ed Duling says:

    “Hone” vs. “home” = one of my pet peeves! It’s hard to correct younger people because they have no experience base these days with the “homing rays” etc. as we baby boomers did.

  2. reardensteel says:

    This one bugs me, and I hear it all the time.

  3. Ghostrider939 says:

    Then it becomes incumbent on the so called authorities of language to tell the TRUTH, admit that ‘hone in’ is incorrect and set the record straight. To just say ‘people use this a lot so we’ll make this correct as well’ is just dumbing down the general populace. Why not just tell the truth and stick with the correct phrase??

    • Grammarist says:

      Are you asking us? We make it pretty clear above which is the original and more logical phrase. What, specifically, would you have us change?

      • David Bourne says:

        No-one seems to realize that “home in” and “hone in” do not mean the same thing. They have similar but distinct meanings. “Home in” means to get closer to like a missile homing in on its target, while “hone in” means to pay close attention to or listen to something. Trying to group the two sayings together as one and decide which one is “correct” is pointless and unnecessary.

        I apologise for posting a copy of my original reply (to Ghostrider939) to you directly. I wanted to ensure that a moderator saw this post, and could possibly ammend the article?

    • Language Nazi,
      If you think language is dictated by a dictionary or what is correct, then you are ignorant. Language is constantly evolving and the “correct” language drastically departs from the vernacular, resulting in a shift in word meaning and usage. It is the reason you can follow the etymology of a language back, probably far enough to point out that a majority of words you use commonly stem from incorrect usages.

      • Like ‘butt naked’ for ‘buck naked’. Some people sing songs using the lyrics they think they hear. But they’re wrong.

      • R de Leon says:

        The term “hone in” is born of a mistake and has absolutely no value in the English language. However, never mind the etymology, the psychology is fascinating. There are the not very bright folk who use “hone in” for obvious reasons. Then there are smarter folk who, when made aware of their silly error, construct convoluted, vaguely absurd arguments to justify their mistake. These invariably rely on very narrow and subtle definitions which in no way relate to everyday usage. Better yet, they use the simplistic and usually disingenuous, “English is a living language and this represents an evolution…..” argument (or excuse). A classic example of intelligent people using clever argument to support an opinion that they formed by other than intellectual means. Fascinating.

        • Actually it’s a pretty good variant, carrying a slightly different feel, one of preciseness. The language continually evolves and blossoms occasionally, as it did in 1920s USA, the WWII era and its aftermath and later in the 20th century when computers began making an impact. Pull that stick out of your rump and roll with it.

          • Jean LePage says:

            Your facile contribution (complete with poor sentence construction, errors of punctuation and facile tone) rather proves R de Leon’s point.

          • Did you just learn facile today and must use it frequently (twice in one sentence)? By the way it is also poor sentence structure.

        • David Bourne says:

          No-one seems to realize that “home in” and “hone in” do not mean the same thing. They have similar but distinct meanings. “Home in” means to get closer to like a missile homing in on its target, while “hone in” means to pay close attention to or listen to something. Trying to group the two sayings together as one and decide which one is “correct” is pointless and unnecessary.

        • ArmchairNihilist says:

          R de Leon, yours is a beautiful deconstruction of one of the most pernicious things in modern English usage.

    • David Bourne says:

      The TRUTH, which no-one seems to realize is that “home in” and “hone in” do not mean the same thing. They have similar but distinct meanings. “Home in” means to get closer to like a missile homing in on its target, while “hone in” means to pay close attention to or listen to something. Trying to group the two sayings together as one and decide which one is “correct” is pointless and unnecessary.

  4. I don’t think the use of “hone” in the common phrase is the result of misspelling or mishearing (that’s an overly generous assessment) but of the strict misuse of a word.

  5. Grammar Police says:

    Yes, but “hone” in – which means to “sharpen” actually makes more sense.

  6. You could quote 50 examples of ‘hone in’ instead of ‘home in,’ and they still would not make the phrase correct, no matter which publication made the mistake.

  7. While I agree that “sharpen in” or “perfect in” does not make pure grammatical sense, I am not entirely sure that “home in” was any better when it was new (that’s what idioms are for!) I would suggest that “home in” means making course adjustments to finding a fixed target, while “hone in” would mean making course adjustments to find the best target, or perhaps optimizing the course toward a target.

    • MatWeller says:

      I’m inclined to agree. Even more so if the supposition in the article is correct that it derives from homing pigeons, since “homing” seems like it could have been coined as the use of a noun as a verb, which would be lazy and slangy to start with. In that case, “hone in” may be wrong, but it’s no worse a language crime than the original phrase.

  8. Wendy Cobrda says:

    Even though I understand the homing pigeon connection, it seems quite acceptable and logical to extend proper use to the phrase “hone in.” Language is nothing if it isn’t fluid and adaptable!

    • So if I want to be really fluid and adaptable, if I tell you that you’re really dumb, you shouldn’t take offense, because in my world, “dumb” means smart. And you can’t tell me it doesn’t.

      • FullySecular says:

        What an absolutely ridiculous and bitchy remark. “Hone in” makes perfect sense, hence the confusion and interchangeable usage. It’s only the people, blinded by their arrogance and linguistic pretension, that make it a problem. It’s like ‘may be’ and ‘might be’ – very nuanced and open to interoperation – and all social classes, not just the English elite who make it their business to interfere and demean those who stray from the extremes of meaning.

        Good day to you.

        • No, most likely the confusion was between the n and m in home and hone. Someone probably said “hone in” by mistake and then was lucky enough to be able to loosely justify it by using the sense of sharpening.

          But notice that “home in,” “zero in,” and “close in” all relate to physical or conceptual distance, whereas “hone” is about physically or conceptually sharpening. And the verb phrase “hone in” doesn’t work as a grammatical parallel at all – “hone in,” “sharpen in,” “whet in,” don’t match the way “home in,” “zero in,” and “close in” do.

          Just because language is fluid doesn’t mean we have to give in to every erroneous construction that surfaces.

  9. So let’s have honing pigeons and honing devices. These flexible grammarians are obliviously people of extinction and dignication.

  10. Louise Calderone says:

    “Hone in” is grammatically superior; why? “Home” is a noun and “hone” is a verb. While we do use nouns as verbs, it’s an especially lazy way of using English. Makes perfect sense for people with good grammar to change it. I hope Jennifer never teaches ESL, as she’s really narrow in her conception of language. “Language Nazi” is a good name for Ghostrider, sheesh.
    That being said, I really dislike “butt naked” but not because of the sensible mistake it is, but because it’s so crude. It’s sort of a Beavis & Butthead expression (heh, heh, he said “butt”).

    • Key point being missed: “home” is a verb as well as a noun.

    • R de Leon says:

      From Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of
      English Usage. “An issue looming on the usage horizon is the
      propriety of the phrase hone in on. George Bush’s use of this phrase in
      the 1980 presidential campaign (he talked of ‘honing in on the issues’) caught
      the critical eye of political columnist Mary McCrory, and her comments on it
      were noted, approved, and expanded by William Safire. Safire observed that hone
      in on is a confused variant of home in on, and there seems to be
      little doubt that he was right. . . . Our first example of home in on is
      from 1951, in a context having to do with aviation. Our earliest record of its
      figurative use is from 1956. We did not encounter hone in on until
      George Bush used it in 1980. . . .

      “Recent evidence suggests that hone in on is becoming increasingly
      common. We have found it twice in the past few years in the pages of a popular
      magazine. . . .

      “It may be that eventually hone in on will become so common that
      dictionaries will begin to enter it as a standard phrase; and usage
      commentators will then routinely rail against it as an ignorant corruption of
      the language. That is a development we can all look forward to, but its time is
      not yet. In the meantime, we recommend that you use home in on instead”.

      “Hone in” is born of a mistake and has no value whatsoever.

      • I heard and used the term “to hone in on” long before former President Bush did. Can’t pin the blame on him. Apparently, this was the phrase that was commonly used when I was growing up and learning the language. However, I am aware that both are used, which was how I found this forum and this post on the subject. I was researching it because I wanted to know what was correct so that I can use what is correct. It looks to me like both are acceptable, but I will more than likely use “home in” even though it sounds wrong in my head. ;-)

        • David Bourne says:

          No-one seems to realize that “home in” and “hone in” do not mean the same thing. They have similar but distinct meanings. “Home in” means to get closer to like a missile homing in on its target, while “hone in” means to pay close attention to or listen to something. Trying to group the two sayings together as one and decide which one is “correct” is pointless and unnecessary.

    • “Home” is both a noun and a verb.

    • What about “zero in,” as in “zero in on a target”? The verb-noun point of “home” vs “hone” is a lot less convincing than the fact that “zero in” and “home in” (or “close in”) all have to do with reducing distance to a desired goal (geographical or conceptual), whereas “hone in” is an ungrammatical coincidence, for lack of a better term, whereby someone probably said “hone in” by mistake and then retroactively justified it because of its meaning “sharpen.”

      I realize language is fluid so insisting on “home in” is probably a lost cause. But to me it seems like a triumph of after-the-fact justification over perfectly good logic. Same as what happened with “for all intensive purposes” – that one can be justified too in the same way that “hone in” can be explained away.

  11. Hone in should be considered incorrect. Until they change the names to “honing pigeons” and “honing beacons”, I will continue to correct people.

  12. You’ve got a typo in the second paragraph; “homing in” should be “honing in,” not because it’s the correct usage (it’s not), but you are supposedly using the gerund form of “hone in” to show how it might considered acceptable.

  13. The “language evolves” excuse is used by people who are trying to cover up their ignorance and misuse of the correct word or phrase, and who are too proud, stubborn, and ignorant to accept correction.

  14. “…It is a very common, though…” Oh, the irony, Grammarist.

  15. People who say “hone in” need to hone their usage skills. The correct phrase is “home in.”

    For those who say “hone in,” do you call it a “homing pigeon” or a “honing pigeon”?

    I’m not a good enough writer to be a pedant, but I also don’t like to see people trying to “correct” people who are actually using the correct phrase.

  16. Fire_and_Steel says:

    The last time I saw “hone in on” used was in an article in the local newspaper. I should have written the editor a letter about it, but I didn’t. Someone at the weekly birdcage liner also recently wrote about someone “praying” on an elderly person, instead of “preying.” They’ve also at least once used “diffuse” instead of “defuse [a situation],” and “disbursed” instead of “dispersed [a crowd].” To me, those are lazy and/or ignorant misuses, probably from overuse of spell-checking software rather than actual proofreading. “Diffuse” especially is “in common use,” and someone probably has some half-baked reason why that should be accepted as proper, too. It’s a bit of a “poke in the eye” to me, and probably to other readers, but my wife and I have a little contest each week, looking for grammatical errors in the fish-wrapper. “Ha; found one. Let me know when you see it.”
    Their new “standard” for journalism seems to be “Hey, as long as it gets past the spell-checker, we’re happy.”
    “-30-“

  17. You are certainly welcome to be on the vanguard of the righteous movement to establish correct English by referring to such august authorities as Wired and a college newspaper. Just so you know, though, if you’re interviewing with me for a job in which you communicate with customers other than through a drive-in window, you won’t be hired if you “hone in” on anything. That’s because serious people will think you’re uneducated and ignorant, and by extension, your employer who apparently knew no better than to hire you.

    • Hysterical. So, if I were an Nobel Prize winning economist, for example, and you were hiring me to say… run the World Bank, you would not hire me because I was unaware of the distinction between hone in and home in. You must either have a lot of turnover or simply have no employees. Personally, I would not hire you unless you used the words oft, thine, and doth.

  18. Andy Enrohnav says:

    Do you “flick” someone off or “flip” someone off?

  19. xiansonofpaul says:

    This whole article is wrong. A hone is a very fine whetstone used for sharpening blades (I use one for wood carving tools) it can also be used to bore precise holes. Honing or “to hone in” is a literal phase meaning to sharpen or make more precise. Originally you would say “hone in your blade” meaning to sharpen it basically as go as you can. So to “hone in your musical talent” means to sharpen it, make it tighter, better, more precise. It has nothing to do with “home” at all.

    • No. You don’t “hone in your blade”, you merely “hone your blade”. You may certainly metaphorically “hone your musicianship”, but you don’t “hone in” anything. I’m glad this isn’t important in a general sense, but it should be recognized that the world is full of sanctimonious twits like me, and many of us play responsible roles in which we are obliged to make judgments about other people. Grammar and diction errors are often seen as evidence that the speaker has not received a rigorous education, is careless, or is simply not “one of us”. Any one of those conclusions can be detrimental to the speaker. Certainly language evolves, but it’s not necessary to be a pioneer, especially in a conservative setting. The wiser course is to accept the linguistic norms of whatever group in which you wish to be accepted as a respected member.

      • David Bourne says:

        No-one seems to realize that “home in” and “hone in” do not mean the same thing. They have similar but distinct meanings. “Home in” means to get closer to like a missile homing in on its target, while “hone in” means to pay close attention to or listen to something. Trying to group the two sayings together as one and decide which one is “correct” is pointless and unnecessary.

        I apologise for posting a copy of my original reply (to Ghostrider939) to you directly. I just wanted to ensure that you saw it.

      • Periods outside the quotation marks? How gauche!!

  20. “I could care less about this issue.” Based on the logic of the apologists on this thread, my statement in quotations is an acceptable way to express indifference because language is fluid and we should welcome the mistakes that have become common usage. I disagree.

  21. David Bourne says:

    No-one seems to realize that “home in” and “hone in” do not mean the same thing. They have similar but distinct meanings. “Home in” means to get closer to like a missile homing in on its target, while “hone in” means to pay close attention to or listen to something. Trying to group the two sayings together as one and decide which one is “correct” is pointless and unnecessary.

  22. BeyondPale says:

    Dear Grammarist…hone in on the error in your explanation.

    Hone in began as an alteration of home in, and many people regard it as an error. It is a very common, though, especially in the U.S. and Canada—so common that many dictionaries now list it—and there are arguments in its favor. Hone means to sharpen or to perfect, and we can think of homing in as a sharpening of focus or a perfecting of one’s trajectory toward a target. So while it might not make strict logical sense, extending hone this way is not a huge leap.

  23. BeyondPale says:

    Dear Grammarist….I’d like to suggest that you zero in on the error in the explanation sentence you posted…Thanks! >>Hone in began as an alteration of home in, and many people regard it as an error. It is a very common, though, especially in the U.S. and Canada—so common that many dictionaries now list it—and there are arguments in its favor.

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